Country First: Conservative Thoughts on Sen. Robert Taft and the 2008 Election
“I do not believe that any war can be justified as a crusade…[if you do] you must admit that the Soviets have a right to crusade to impose Communism on the rest of the world…a crusade by its very nature is an aggressive act.” Who said those words? Gene McCarthy? Henry Wallace? George McGovern? If you even guessed that these words came from a liberal, you’d be horribly wrong. This indictment of interventionist foreign policy came from the golden tongue of “Mr. Republican” himself – the late senator from Ohio, Robert Taft. Before Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were major forces within the Republican Party, Sen. Taft certainly represented the conservative conscience in America. A formidable opponent of President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, Taft was the philosophical compass of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. However, fifty-five years after his passing, Taft has been rejected or forgotten. Indeed, look at who is topping the Republican ticket this year. Sen. McCain is a proponent of an interventionist foreign policy that fails to grasp the realities of the world or the traditional principles of his party. As a Taft Republican, I cannot in good conscience vote for Sen. McCain. However, there is an option for you if you desire to support conservativism this fall – unless, of course, you want to fall for that short-sighted argument concerning the “lesser of two evils.”
It is hard to imagine that fifty years or so years ago, the Republican Party was the peace party – not the war party. Indeed, there was a stigma attached to the party because of the deep-seated Republican opposition to involvement in World War II (before Pearl Harbor). While Franklin Roosevelt seemed to want to be involved in the war up to the point of actually waging it, there were some principled conservatives who deemed it best to avoid war unless it was absolutely necessary. Sen. Robert Taft was one of those virtuous politicians. Taft and the conservatives were not so much against the idea of war as they were against the idea of military crusades for democracy and the imposition of American values on foreign nations. In a 1939 speech, Sen. Taft said: “We should be prepared to defend our own shores, but we should not undertake to defend the ideals of democracy in foreign countries…no one has ever suggested before that a single nation should range over the world, like a knight-errant, protect democracy and ideals of good faith, and tilt, like Don Quixote, against the windmills of fascism…Such a policy is not only vain, but bound to lead to war.” Taft was opposed to a war framed as a forced exportation of “Americanism.” America is not the world policeman or the ultimate arbiter of what is right anymore than was Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Perhaps it is former President William H. Taft who best gives words to the non-interventionist foreign policy of pre-World War II conservatism. The President said that America is “not a knight-errant country going about to independent people and saying, ‘we do not like your form of government, we have tried our form of government…and you have to take it.”
Sen. Taft did not oppose war simply due to a pacific political streak or because he was an isolationist. The Ohioan saw that there were domestic issues in America that needed to be dealt with long before America even considered intervening in European affairs. What must be remembered is that America was still mired in the Great Depression in the years immediately preceding the war. Regardless of the debatable efficacy of Pres. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies (which Taft strongly opposed as being inefficient), an economic crisis gripped America in a stranglehold from which the nation needed to be released. Why pursue European problems when American troubles persist at home? Sen. Taft believed that America should be placed in the first consideration – Europe second.
Perhaps Sen. Taft’s ideas that are most pertinent to today regard those in relation to ideological crusades. As was mentioned earlier, the senator was very much opposed to military actions based upon mystical idealism. He had had previous experience with the results of such expeditions. Immediately following World War I, young Robert Taft worked for the American Relief Association, which distributed relief supplies to war devastated Europe. The inefficiency and bureaucracy disgusted the future senator, driving him further to the right politically. Taft’s European experiences solidified him as a non-interventionist. His vision in this regard became particularly visible in the preparations for post-war foreign policy. He did not believe that America was called by God or anybody else to be the world’s arbiter. The office of the Presidency is not gifted with infallibility in the affairs of the world. Sen. Taft said: “We can’t crusade throughout the world for the four freedoms, or force milk on people who don’t like milk without making ourselves thoroughly hated…No nation should insist on interfering with the internal affairs of other nations unless it is prepared to submit to the same interference itself.” Taft was first and foremost realistic. He understood that interference in the affairs of those who do not desire American intervention would only breed hatred and resentment. “Other people simply do not like to be dominated, and we would be in the same position of suppressing rebellion by force in which the British found themselves during the nineteenth century.” The government should not commit American troops to defend the liberties of others for the sake of the holy idea of democracy or the divine mystery of liberty. Instead, as Taft writes in his 1951 classic A Foreign Policy for Americans: “I do not believe any policy which has behind it the threat of military force is justified as part of the basic foreign policy of the United States except to defend the liberty of our own people.”
Sen. Robert Taft was not a random conservative radical elected by a “leave me alone” Western state or libertarian New Hampshire. He was elected by the commonsensical Heartland voters of Ohio. Sen. Taft was “Mr. Republican.” He was the principled voice of American conservatism in his era.
Let us return now to 2008. In nearly a month, an election will take place between Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). While it may seem obvious to conservatives that they should simply pull the lever for McCain like some mindless robot, I would suggest otherwise.
While it is said that foreign policy experience is McCain’s greatest strength, I disagree. The great campaign hagiographies of the senator say that McCain criticized the execution of the war from the beginning. He believed that there needed to be a substantial number of troops on the ground. However, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ignored McCain’s sage advice and proceeded to administer a disastrous war. If only that version of history was correct. In a 2002 interview with Larry King, the senator said that “[American] technology, particularly air-to-ground technology, is vastly improved…I don’t think you’re going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that we had back in 1991.” In a newspaper editorial in March 2002, McCain wrote: “I have no qualms about our strategic plans.” In a CNN interview also in 2002, he said that “success will be fairly easy.” Unfortunately, Senator McCain was horribly wrong in his prewar beliefs. What was supposed to be an easy victory has devolved into quagmire. However, McCain has not apologized for his vote or simply announced that he (along with most of Congress in the lead up to the war) was wrong. Instead, he has attempted to rewrite history, and in the process attempting to deceive the American people into believing that he foresaw the problems of the Iraq War only to be rejected by the President. In 2007, Sen. McCain said: “When I voted to support this war, I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough, and those that voted for it and thought that somehow it was going to be some kind of an easy task, then I’m sorry they were mistaken. Maybe they didn’t know what they were voting for.” Unfortunately, Sen. McCain was one of those who perhaps “didn’t know what they were voting for.”
Perhaps McCain can be forgiven for playing historical revisionism – he is a politician, after all, and such tactics are natural to those in that profession. However, there are flaws in his fundamental foreign policy that should not be forgiven by conservatives. In particular, McCain attempted to sell the war by talking about the glories of exporting democracy to Iraq. For McCain, this was part of the two-pronged justification for the war (the other being the weapons of mass destruction). In March 2003, McCain said on Hannity & Colmes that “[the war is] going to send the message throughout the Middle East that democracy can take hold in the Middle East.” However, should democracy take hold in Iraq (an event very much in doubt), what type of government will it allow? Will all the Iraqis who begrudge our occupation and interference in Middle Eastern affairs suddenly see the light and elect a pro-Western government, or will the Shiite majority elect a government that will be closer to Tehran than Washington? Perhaps it would be best if McCain would remember the words of Sen. Taft: “We may favor freedom and democracy in every country in the world, but no one has ever changed the philosophy of other peoples for the better by conquest. No one has been able to impose for long a form of government on any people which does not wish it or is not suited for it.” McCain may be able to impose democracy upon the Iraqi people, but he cannot guarantee that it will work to America’s advantage.
McCain’s foreign policy is not conservative. His conservative credentials are challenged on sundry other issues, though space does not allow for their discussion presently. What is a conservative to do? Should he stay home? No. It is hard to register a protest vote that does not exist. Instead, traditional conservatives should consider casting their votes for a third party candidate. This strategy is not negated by the fact that there is no third party candidate behind which all traditional conservatives can unite. Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party and Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party both have their strengths and weaknesses, and neither are on the ballot in all 50 states. However, should either candidate poll the margin an Obama victory, much as the media pointed towards Ralph Nader as the reason for Gore’s loss in 2000 so too will they point to the candidate who cost McCain the election. And much as the Democratic Party took notice and moved leftward towards its core principles, perchance the Republican Party will likewise take a second glance at the traditional principles that they have so willfully abandoned. Perhaps the Republicans will realize that they simply cannot take the conservative vote for granted. Perhaps they will remember the voice of Sen. Robert Taft.